At the risk of stating the obvious, becoming a parent is more complicated for same-sex couples than for heterosexual folks. By necessity, a third party is involved.
Daily parenting and co-parenting are also complicated by the dominant social presumption that parents will be one male and one female. There are things to consider and attend to that heterosexual parents take for granted. The education system, for instance. Does the child’s school offer a variety of images of families so the child will feel included? Do the co-parents get a relaxed welcome at parent-teacher meetings and school events?
Legally, things are different, too. In the past, many jurisdictions did not recognized same-sex marriages. Couples publicly celebrated their unions with deeply cherished ceremonies while knowing they were not considered married in the eyes of the law. Ceremonies were typically called “weddings” and their dissolution “divorces” regardless of the legalities.
Ironically, the inability of these couples to marry legally, which they desired at the time of their wedding or commitment ceremony, simplified their separation. Couples were free to determine how they would deconstruct their family without having to go to court.
In the following story, Marian’s grief over separating from Beth was overwhelming at first; with time and growth, she and Beth co-operated fully in parenting their daughter.
“We kept our daughter’s needs front and centre,” said Marian, a self- contained, articulate 50-year-old woman with a direct gaze and quiet hands.
I interviewed Marian nine years after she and her partner, Beth, had separated. Their daughter, Wyn, was two when they split up.
Marian’s composure anchored a story with remarkably low friction between the parents and a clear focus on their daughter. Marian and Beth had been together 15 years and were both in their 40s when they adopted Wyn. Marian said, “Anger was never my go-to reaction. More often I’d get sad.”
Years of trying to get pregnant intensified Marian’s yearning to be a family. They tried in-vitro fertilization, an uncomfortable and invasive procedure, for eight years. “Once we decided to adopt, it was like going down a slide – so smooth, we both felt this was the child we were meant to have.” Her eyes gleamed. “We were able to be at her birth.”
Regret tinged Marian’s voice. “When you have a child, something has to give in how you spend time. Couple time is what went in our house. I was focused on Wyn, and Beth felt lonely. She ended up forming another emotional attachment and felt she needed to leave. We went to couples therapy, but Beth had already fallen in love with someone else.” The therapy helped Marian understand her part in the relationship breakdown, so she didn’t heap blame on Beth.
The first phase of separating was painful. “I remember lying on the floor, crying, with Beth on one side of me and Wyn on the other, patting me on the shoulder, trying to help me. I felt sad and weak. The beauty of having a toddler is that you can’t just stay in bed, you have to get up!”
Marian suffered, yet the breakup held little blame and anger. Both were gripped by strong feelings: Marian was grieving and Beth felt guilty. They negotiated their schedule without needing to protect themselves or trying to hurt the other parent, and they were able to keep the focus on Wyn. “We didn’t fight, and we committed to not criticizing each other. Even when we were together, it was never a relationship with fighting.”
Because they had been unable to wed legally when they, the legalities of Marian and Beth’s separation was simple. “We set up an agreement, and talked dollars. As I had more assets, I’d pay 60%. We’ve kept a pretty loose arrangement – if one of us feels strongly about something, we pay for that.”
Marian knew she needed Beth. “I wanted to be able to rely on her as my parenting partner; it was too hard for me alone. I understood that our schedule needed to work for both of us so I could get my needs met. It wasn’t a control thing, or us trying to hurt each other.”
Their schedule evolved with time. Marian stayed in their house. Her work as a writer gave her flexibility, so she initially spent more time with Wyn. Beth moved into a rental and then into a house with her new girlfriend. At first, Wyn spent five nights a week with Marian and two nights a week with Beth. Two years later, they shifted to four nights and three nights – Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with Beth, and with Marian the other nights.
Marian and Beth tried to have the same rules in their houses so Wyn wouldn’t have to reconcile two different worlds. They found houses close to each other so their daughter could walk back and forth between them. Marian felt lucky that their finances let them live with school and friends all within a few blocks.
Marian had more faith in her ex’s parenting skills than in her own, something rarely heard in these interviews. She felt herself too lax. “I wish I could be the kind, thoughtful disciplinarian who lets natural consequences happen. It’s at Beth’s house where homework, chores, and manners are addressed.”
Overall, the parents’ respect for each other continued and their cooperation evolved. They celebrated Wyn’s birthday together, and the parents and new partners plus Wyn were now taking some vacations jointly. “We love each other still; it’s more like sisters now.”
Almost all mothers feel the weight of society’s – and their own – expectations to be stellar. Marian and Beth felt an extra need to be exemplary role models and visible pioneers. Also, in order to become pregnant, they had sought out invasive physical procedures. It was, therefore, extraordinarily painful to acknowledge the breakdown of the relationship. It took extra courage to accept the new reality.
Marian’s biggest challenge was to grieve the loss of their intact family and rebuild a new life. She found that meeting her daughter’s needs kept her in the present and helped her survive.
She felt deep satisfaction with her growth and Wyn’s well-being. Given the extra pressures, I was impressed at Marian's ability to survive, develop, and co-parent.
Karen L. Kristjanson, MSc, MA, is a professional life coach, writer, and member of Leading Women for Shared Parenting. A co-parent herself, she has over 30 years of experience supporting adults tackling change, to help them both survive and grow. Karen found co-parenting worthwhile, challenging, and lonely. Determined to support others who were sharing parenting with their ex-spouse or partner, she interviewed 42 moms and dads for her book, Co-Parenting from the Inside Out: Voices of Moms and Dads (Dundurn Press, December 2017).